The threat from inside

Mapping the rise of far-right extremism in Quebec

Kennedy McKee-Braide, Opinion Editor

On Jan. 6, far-right supporters of former United States President Donald Trump stormed the American Capitol Building in an attempted insurrection that killed five. Throughout Trump’s presidency, far-right extremist hate groups proliferated on social media and in public spaces. Political figures, including the president himself, have also depreciated the gravity of their own actions, which has in turn brought far-right radicalization into the mainstream.

Far-right extremism, also referred to as the extreme right, is defined as a branch of right-wing political ideology and action that is more radical than the mainstream realm of conservative politics.

Some Canadians may see far-right politics as a distinctly American phenomenon, but far-right hate groups have long been lurking across the country, including in Quebec. Four years ago on Jan. 29, a far-right extremist killed six and injured 19 at a Quebec City mosque, inspiring similar attacks around the world in years to come. Much like in the U.S., Canadian extremist networks have only grown stronger through social media, and even more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Quebec, the far-right has existed for decades. Frédérick Nadeau is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Centre of Expertise and Training on Religious Fundamentalism, Political Ideologies and Radicalization (CEFIR), a research centre focussing on political radicalization based in Cégep Édouard-Montpetit. According to Nadeau, the existence of far-right movements in Quebec dates back to at least to the Quiet Revolution. Up until around the 2010s, however, such groups generally flew under the radar. For the first half of the decade, these groups were mostly made up of young skinhead neo-Nazis.

“Starting in 2015-2016, with La Meute, the Soldiers of Odin, and Storm Alliance, we see that the extreme right becomes less ‘clandestine,’” Nadeau wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.* “It abandoned the [neo-Nazi] approach characteristic of the skinhead groups prior to 2015, and adopted a more (ultra)nationalist and identity-based ideology.”

In essence, far-right extremist groups became more palpable, making the average person more likely to get involved, thus rendering them more accessible to new demographics. Nadeau explained that the makeup of these groups has shifted from primarily young, violent skinhead types to middle-aged workers and otherwise ‘ordinary’ people. As these shifts in formal or informal group membership occured, public debates sprang up over several controversial pieces of legislation.

“This trend can be linked to the opening of the floodgates we see in the wake of debates surrounding reasonable accommodations (2006-2008), and the Charter of Values (2013), which permitted a normalization of hostile discourse towards immigration and Islam,” Nadeau wrote. “We therefore encounter a plethora of xenophobic and islamophobic groups on social media, and we see groups looking to exit the virtual space to materialize in the ‘real world.’”

Although the Charter of Values, Bill 60, never came into law and was abandoned after the Liberal Party of Quebec took power in 2014, the Coalition Avenir Quebec government has since implemented elements of the secularism bill. Most notably, Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, came into law in 2019. The law prevents public workers from wearing religious symbols at work, including hijabs, kippahs, and turbans. It has attracted high levels of both public scrutiny and support, signalling that the motivating factors that draw individuals towards far-right ideologies remain relevant. The prevalence of these sentiments in the mainstream serve both to promote radicalization and to advance this kind of legislation.

One of the most notable homegrown far-right groups, which itself followed the trajectory Nadeau described, is La Meute, or the Wolf Pack. The group was founded by two men from Beauce, Quebec, who wanted to form a hierarchical, paramilitary group founded on concerns over increasing diversity in the province, with particular hostility towards Muslims. As of 2016, around their peak, the group had about 43,000 members in its Facebook group.

La Meute is just one example—different groups hold different core missions and values. However, there are several different key ideological factors most of them have in common.

“In short, the fundamental essence that links all the currents of the extreme right is the rejection of liberal democracy and ideals of modernity, which they believe threaten the natural order of things,” Nadeau wrote. “Other recurring ideological characteristics of the far-right—which are not compulsory—often [include] nationalism or a certain ‘identity fetishism,’ racism, xenophobia and a tendency towards authoritarianism (‘law and order’ thinking) and, to a certain degree, populism."

Perhaps due in part to the efforts of members of antifascist networks in Quebec, La Meute is less active today. Only about 16,000 members remain in their public Facebook group. However, other groups and prominent media figures have sprung up in its place. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has fanned the flame for alt-right groups. Public health measures are seen as overly restrictive, prompting concerns about government overreach that have led to anti-mask rallies across the province.

Nadeau feels that the circumstances of the pandemic fit into the ideological agenda of these groups and allow them to further propagate their beliefs.

“Extreme right movements, which existed before the pandemic, have used it to advance their populist agenda and undermine public trust in institutions of liberal democracy,” Nadeau wrote. “They have used ‘restrictive’ sanitary measures to put forward and popularize the narrative that the far right always has, that the world elites work in the shadows to destroy peoples and nations.”

One public figure of the far-right who has capitalized on concerns related to COVID-19 is Alexis Cossette-Trudel.

Cossette-Trudel creates conspiracy theory content in French, mostly promoting the notorious QAnon theory, which has ravaged online far-right spaces in the U.S. But on top of QAnon content, he has also attended several anti-mask demonstrations and has become one of the most prominent COVID-19 ‘skeptics’ in the province.

Social media undoubtedly plays an extremely significant role in contemporary political radicalism. Taylor Owen, associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, and director of The Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, believes that several factors make this the case.

“Before the internet, you had to know [people with similar views], and maybe subscribe to a newsletter that they physically sent around, or join a chapter of a radical group, whatever it might be,” Owen said.“The main thing the internet first did was connect anyone with that sort of budding radicalism to other people who had similar feelings anywhere in the world.”

The other major factor is the use of algorithms, which have become a key point of debate and discussion in terms of far-right and otherwise extremist radicalization. In recent years, discourse has developed surrounding the “alt-right rabbit hole,” whereby users are directed towards extremist, white supremacist content via recommendations, particularly on YouTube. This is due to the implementation of algorithms which directly prompt users to engage with extremist groups rather than leaving this content obscure.

“[The algorithm] has figured out that a lot of people are interested in ideas that are a bit outside of their comfort zone and slightly radicalize them,” Owen said. “You watch one YouTube video that is totally innocuous, and it recommends a series of videos in a progression that get more and more extreme.”

Increasingly, different social media platforms serve different purposes, providing a myriad of ways to foster fringe movements. While YouTube introduces some users to more radical content, Facebook helps share it and provides people with semi-private groups to build networks amongst themselves. Other applications like Telegram and Signal allow for encrypted communication, which far-right movements can use to mobilize directly. Prior to its removal from app stores and servers, Parler, an emerging platform that claimed to address concerns about free speech on social media, added to the rally power of these groups.

One of the key issues with social media sites facilitating the growth of far-right communities is that they are operated by private companies. Elected governments typically do not act fast enough on legislation, do not care enough, or have too many vested financial and political interests in the platforms to impose regulations on what content they allow or promote.

This is not to say that social media giants have not cracked down on the far-right. In mid-January, almost every major social media platform, including Twitter and Facebook, banned former President Trump and far-right extremist content after the events of Jan. 6. Even more recently, Facebook promised it would reduce recommendations of political content on its site, proving the platforms do have the agency to restrict extremist content by changing their algorithms. Twitter banned Cossette-Trudel that same week.

Above all, these companies are businesses that operate to serve their best interests without always following a strict moral code. Until the general public pushes back against platforms enabling this kind of radicalization enough to threaten their profitability or unless governments decide to take a stronger stance on them, they will inevitably continue to be used as tools for radicalization.

While social media plays a significant role in the radicalization process, Roxane Martel-Perron, researcher and director of education and skills development at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, argues that it occurs in a perfect storm. In most cases, multiple aggravating factors come together to radicalize someone.

“Every process of radicalization is really singular to every individual, so there’s no predetermined path,” Martel-Perron said. “Media is one thing, but it’s not the only thing that’s going to have an influence.”

Oftentimes, those who feel isolated or disenfranchised in their personal lives may be more likely to seek out coping mechanisms, which can make them more likely to turn to radical ideas and be more vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups. Martel-Perron describes this process as a push and pull.

“You have factors that are going to attract people towards looking for answers and [thinking] ‘I’m feeling this and that way, I’m feeling victimized, I’m feeling that I have no place in society, and I’m losing my privileges,’” Martel-Perron said. “[T]hen you also have some pull factors where these groups are going to be able to attract these [individuals].”

Beyond ideological factors, these groups can also provide a genuine sense of community that someone in a negative social or familial position may latch on to.

“[Far-right groups] answer to various needs that the person may have,” Martel-Perron said. “It’s going to answer a need for belonging, for being part of something bigger than you, for having a family, for finding a purpose to your life. You find friends, you have people who care for you.”

While these kinds of personal factors are not excuses for one’s racism, xenophobia, or otherwise discriminatory sentiments or behaviours, understanding and identifying the root factors behind one’s radicalization is an effective way to fight extremism and reduce harm.

At the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, Martel-Perron and her colleagues recognize that some may not want to seek formal channels of help. The Centre strives to offer a holistic approach to deradicalization, which centres around community engagement, education, as well as collaboration. The Centre’s work is based on empirical research examining the processes of all forms of radicalization.

“We offer individual but also collective support services with partners involved around a person,” Martel-Perron said. “So their school, their family. It can be a football coach, whoever is around.”

Martel-Perron believes that preventing violent extremism is a collective effort and that everybody has a role to play. Being aware and mindful of the signs is important to connecting with a person before the situation becomes dire. For this reason, the Centre has developed a behaviour barometer, a tool that can be used by family, friends, colleagues, and anyone else to help recognize worrisome behaviours.

“The good news is that radicalization leading to violence is a behavioural and cognitive process where the person changes, and these behaviours can be and are witnessed by the [loved ones] of a person,” Martel-Perron said. “[The barometer] is not a clinical assessment tool. It’s not going to help you know for sure, but it’s going to help you gain a kind of understanding.”

While it may seem that far-right extremism is only becoming more prominent in Quebec society, this cycle does not have to continue. Stopping it will take time, research, and collective effort.

*Interview conducted in French and translated by the author.

Design by Chloe Rodriguez.